Zoe Weil’s TEDx Talk: The World Becomes What You Teach (Full Transcript)

I became a humane educator back in 1987 when I was looking for a summer job. And I found this program that was offering week-long courses to middle school students in Philadelphia. So that’s where I taught my first humane education courses. And I watched in amazement as these kids were transformed over the course of a week. In one case, overnight. I taught about product testing on animals one day, and I talked about how soaps and lotions and oven cleaners squeezed into the eyes of conscious rabbits, and forced fed them in quantities that kill them.

And a boy from the class went home that night and he made his own homemade leaflets about product testing. Well, he came into class the next morning and he showed them to me and he asked if he can hand them out. I said, sure, I thought he wanted to hand them out to his fellow classmates. He wanted to hand them out on the street. So while the rest of us were having lunch, he was on the Philadelphia street corner handing out his leaflets. He’d become an activist overnight. Actually, several of the kids in that class, became activists. Two of them formed a Philadelphia area wide student group that went on to win awards for their great work.

Well, that was the summer I realized that I’d found my life’s work as a humane educator, and I went on to form a humane education program where I brought presentations and courses into schools. And there was one school, a public high school, where I did an after-school course. And there was a boy in the class named Mike. He was a senior. He always sat near the front. He was really smart. He always played devil’s advocate, which I loved because I want my students to be critical thinkers about all else. In fact, I often begin presentations by telling students, “Don’t believe a word I say.”

Well, I still worried about Mike. I worried whether or not I was really reaching him. Because he never had an emotional response to any of the issues that we were discussing, and there were some pretty intense issues. Well, on the last day of class I decided to do a rather unconventional activity called the “council of all beings”, where I invited the students to become through their imaginations, another being, whether a part of nature or another animal or another person, and then just speak as this being, and talk about what’s happening to them, and talk about what they want to change, and share their wisdom.

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So I was really worried. How is Mike is going to react to this kind of touchy-feely activity? But my fears were totally unfounded. Mike had become the ocean. And when he spoke, poetry just poured out of his mouth. I was stunned. When the activity was over, that was the end of the course. We were saying our goodbyes and Mike said, “Thank you, Zoe. When I look back on high school, this is what I’m going to remember.”

So yes, I believe this form of education is good for kids. Is it fair to them? Well, to answer that question I want to tell you another story. A couple of years ago, I was asked to be the speaker at the National Honor Society Induction at a local high school. And I did an activity with the audience called “true price”, in which we look at an everyday object like bottled water or a fast food cheese burger, and ask what is the true price of this item on ourselves as individuals, on other people, on other species, and on the environment? Well, that particular day I did “true price” with a T-shirt. And I’m going to do a little bit of this activity with you.

So, what are the effects both positive or negative of this item on me as a consumer, on other people, on animals and on the environment? Well, questions like those could be somebody’s dissertation. So to answer them today I’m just going to scratch the surface. Well, the first thing I need to do to answer those questions is look to the item itself. So I’m going to look at the label and see what it has to tell me. Well, I found out when I looked at this label that it’s a 100% cotton. It’s made in China. And I learned how to launder it. I also learned that it’s dry cleanable, in case I would like to spend 6 dollars to clean my T-shirt.

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So, that doesn’t tell me very much, I’m going to have to dig a little bit deeper. And if I do some research into cotton and cotton T-shirts, I’m going to find out that cotton is a crop that is heavily sprayed with pesticides, many of which are toxic and we know they’re toxic because of the incredibly cruel tests that were done on animals to test them. We also discover that many of those pesticides end up polluting our soil and our waterways.

Now, if I find out a little bit more about cotton I will come across some information that it’s estimated that a third of cotton is produced in Uzbekistan where by another estimate, there are 1 million children working in those fields as slaves. Now that cotton, after it’s grown, has to be turned into cloth and then it has to be dyed because it didn’t get to be this red color out of the ground.

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